PANTHERS MORNING AFTER

Panther fans rose Monday morning in the Carolinas to sub-freezing temperatures and a strange, eerie feeling: despite the weirdness of having to mourn the Panthers loss to the Falcons on Sunday, Carolina still has a legitimate shot at the playoffs…and that's just downright spooky.

FIRST AND TEN

Whatever hokey pokey juice John Fox is putting on the rest of the NFC, after Sunday his supply is surely running short.

The Panthers have to win both its remaining games against Tampa Bay in Tampa and New Orleans at Bank of America Stadium to finish 8-8 and hold onto its thin playoff hopes. But getting there will take every drop of juice Fox has left.

Playing the Bucs on their turf is never an easy task, especially after a Tampa loss the previous week. The victor in Tampa Bay on Sunday, the Saints, are coming off consecutive wins and are riding a healthy Deuce McAllister into a year-end grudge match. Oh, and the Saints also have an outside shot at the playoffs.

Maybe they've got some of that juice, too.

Freaky. Simply freaky. Supernatural Sunday saw the Rams lose in convincing style to the woeful Cardinals, Philly prevail against the Cowboys, the Vikings luck out against Detroit on a missed point after attempt and Seattle pounded by the Jets. All these outcomes, coupled with New Orleans' win, combined to lift the Panthers back into playoff contention despite the devastating loss in the Georgia Dome.

In this strange whacked-out season, the NFC's last wildcard team might be the one with the most magic left.

A FEW OBSERVATIONS FROM gasp! SATURDAY'S CONTEST

- Kindall Morehead is turning heads around the league with his improved play. Morehead served breakfast to the Falcons with a first quarter pancake of Micheal Vick. That hit would echo with Vick all night.

- At 11:35 left in the 1st half, Jake Delhomme failed to recognize backside pressure from Falcons linebacker Keith Brookings, who's sack caused a key turnover. Delhomme saw Brookings streak by on his right side, but a failure by Matt Willig to communicate Brookings' imminent threat allowed Delhomme to think he had time to make the throw.

- Fox was right not to challenge the play. It was clearly a fumble.

- The touchdown resulting from the Delhomme fumble was a weak lob pass from Vick that Chris Gamble never found in the air as he defended the play. When defending corner fades in the end zone, finding the ball is job one.

- There's two minutes left in the first quarter and already I'm sick of Joe Theismann's love affair with Micheal Vick.

- The 2nd possession of the second quarter, the Falcons call their second trick play, a direct snap to Warrick Dunn, who rambled off tackle for a first down.

- The absolute key play of the game for Carolina was at the 12:15 mark in the second quarter. Delhomme hit Muhsin Muhammad on a hard sideline curl for a first down. The conversion stemmed momentum by the Falcons who had already put 10 points on the board, and eventually led to a Panthers touchdown. The drive amassed 7:23 and kept the Falcons offense on the sidelines. Carolina would ride the momentum change to a 10 to 10 halftime tie.

- A side note on Mike Patrick. I love Patrick's play-by-play calling, especially in college basketball. But Patrick was completely off his game Saturday. Three separate times Patrick misnamed Panthers players, once even calling John Kasay Feely. Patrick's biggest faux pas was when he called the Panthers the Falcons. Sorry, Mike, but there is no bigger insult.

- A side note on ESPN announcers. The first 2:26 of the second half was dedicated to a dissertation by the ESPN booth crew on Michael Vick. Later, during a key Falcons touchdown drive, it took these commentators three minutes and 54 seconds to realize that Julius Peppers was out of the game. The boys in the truck knew Peppers was out; they showed Peppers twice on the sidelines limping around and shaking his wrist. But the men upstairs rattled on oblivious. The Falcons ran all over Carolina with Peppers out, pulling the drive out to 8:12 and ending in a touchdown.

- Uh, I don't think this is a secret anymore, but Carolina's special teams stink. They were horrible in all phases against the Falcons.

- I think Jamal Broussard may get cut this week.

- I was thinking, deep into the third quarter and Atlanta up by ten, that the Panthers needed a turnover…but not for the Falcons, who recovered Delhomme's second fumble. Gamble saved some face by intercepting Vick at the Falcon's three yard line. The Panthers then went 97 yards for a touchdown, accentuated by some beautiful tight end gaming by Dan Henning.

- I like having Artrell Hawkins as my nickel back. That's one tough bird that can punch out a fumble from Alge Crumpler.

- Pepper's fumble return at the 10:09 mark in the fourth quarter was as athletic a play from a defensive end as I've seen this season.

- Mark Fields was in Vick's face all day. It was joyous to see Vick looking frustrated and sulky on the bench after Field's sack led to Peppers' romp into the end zone.

- The Falcons have speed at every position, thus, my new name for them is "The Dixie Pixs".

- Scott O'Brien might retire out of embarrassment at season's end.

- I think if the Panthers win out and somehow reach the playoffs, Jerry Richardson will need to give his entire training room crew a raise.

FOURTH AND GOAL

The Panthers have been through a meat grinder this season and have been a compelling story no matter the date. To see John Fox and his resilient collection of waling wounded overcome the most difficult of circumstances is a point of immense pride for Panther fans and should be a springboard for seasons to come.

We'll watch and hope for victory and the playoffs, but we'll be proud of these Panthers no matter what happens over the holidays.

My best wishes to you and your families for a safe and joyous Christmas and New Years. May God be with you whatever your walk of life.

You can reach Chaz at chazestes@yahoo.com.

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